Goodbye S.M.A.R.T. Goals

A few days ago I was having a cocktail with some friends on a rooftop bar here in Portland, Oregon and someone brought up S.M.A.R.T. goal setting. I instinctively groaned and everyone immediately turned to look at me questioningly. Just like that, I had captured everyone’s rapt attention. I had no idea this was such a hot topic. I looked back at them with a grin, took a deep breath, and then started preaching.

What is it about S.M.A.R.T. goals that we feel so attached to? One friend, a teacher, uses it with her middle school students. Another friend was trained to use the process during his work as a bicycle mechanic and social justice organizer. I know leaders at Humana and other highly successful companies that swear by it. This technique is widely accepted across so many sectors, but it just doesn’t work for me.

I couldn’t help but react with a groan because I never got anywhere meaningful with that type of approach.

We’re taught to rationalize, think, and plan everything out. But, really what matters to us is how we feel. We are motivated by a desire to feel a certain way, not just to get to a certain point. When we set our goals based simply on a certain idea that we feel pulled towards, we may not be considering our true and deepest motivations. We need to know the underlying reasons a goal sounds appealing to us before we start working towards it.

Take, for example, a desire to go to law school. With the S.M.A.R.T. goals approach, you would dive right in and say, “Hey, that seems like something I want to do. It measures up to all 5 requirements.” Then, what if you don’t get in? You may end up feeling worse than you felt before and be back at square one. Or maybe you get into a school that doesn’t quite fit your vision, but you go along with it anyway. After all, you had set a goal and you want to accomplish it. Is it still going to give you what you had envisioned?

Now think about it a different way.

You wake up in the morning and take some time to notice how you feel at that moment and how you want to feel in your life. Maybe you even read the book The Desire Map to deeply explore what you want to create. (The author, Danielle LaPorte, also threw away her traditional annual goal-setting approach in favor of this technique). You identify 3-5 feelings that you want. Throughout your day, you realize that you can tap into those feelings in so many ways.

By aligning to those core desired feelings regularly, you become a magnet for more opportunities to feel the way you want to feel. You also start to become the person you truly want to be.

One of my core desired feelings is “free”, and I find ways to feel free in even the smallest of moments in each busy day. I can take a quick walk in the sunshine or recall a memory of the feeling. I can even imagine a new situation that would give me the feeling. And it so happens that the more I say yes to the things that make me feel free and the more I say no to the things that don’t, the more powerfully I bring that feeling into my life in bigger ways. It helps me be less controlling and perfectionistic, more accepting and spontaneous.

Sooooo, how do you want to feel? Who do you want to be?

Here’s the biggest question of all: What if we built companies and organizations based on how the individuals inside and outside the organization want to feel?

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